A great number of people around the world believe in a higher power. What an idea of God looks like varies incredibly among religions and cultures, but, generally speaking, whatever that celestial being is, it is capable of incredible things. Such miracles and all-knowing action are typically relegated to biblical times and fabled stories, since their physical manifestation in the present day would be a startling sight. In the new Korean Netflix series Hellbound, the undeniable presence of supernatural forces upends daily life for those apparently damned to hell and the science-minded law enforcers left behind.
In the series’ opening moments, a man sitting in a coffee shop checks the time, and when the dreaded moment arrives, his fate is worse than he could have imagined. After being visited by an angel five hours earlier, he is now headed to hell. His journey is a public one, as three large, terrifying gray figures seemingly made of smoke or dust burst in and chase him down the street, taking turns beating him down before draining his body, leaving nothing but ashes. This is revealed to be the latest of such events where a warning precedes a vicious execution that cannot be ignored by the many bystanders who capture the horrifying process on video.
This series comes from filmmaker Yeon Sang-ho, best known for helming Train to Busan, and writer-illustrator Choi Kyu-seok, who collaborated previously on the webtoon The Hell, which serves as the basis for this concept. It’s an idea that works well when adapted to a live-action format, in part because the sight of a large talking head defined as an angel or these enforcers of hell, best described as a robot-like cross between The Thing and Thanos, feels all the more real and impossible to write off as anything else when shown alongside real people and real backdrops.
What’s most interesting is not the otherworldly but the ways that people search for meaning in what they can’t explain. Detective Jin Kyung-hoon (Yang Ik-june) is the Agent Scully to this extraterrestrial anomaly, intent on investigating these eviscerations as murders, even if he can logically acknowledge that the perpetrators are not of this earth. Two cults seek to extrapolate a message from these premeditated departures, one viewing them as a cautionary tale for others to repent and the other actively taking steps to hunt down villains among them and exact their own form of justice.
While there is a horror bent to this show, it’s probably best compared to The Leftovers, a series that featured developments that were divinely inspired and assigned significance by humans who couldn’t hope to truly know their purpose. The way that people are moved to act by their own limitations and lack of understanding is genuinely fascinating, and it’s yet another instance that anything that affects the masses still manages to provoke deeply disjointed and conflicting responses rather than unity.
Those averse to demonic imagery and storylines may be turned off by the premise of this show, but its focus on the people trying both to comprehend and to anticipate is far more pronounced. Subplots involving Kyung-hoon’s grief related to the murder of his wife and his daughter’s involvement in one of the cults, whose charismatic leader, Jung Jin-soo (Yoo Ah-in), speaks in an almost scientific and scholarly manner about his beliefs, make the drama all the more compelling. There are layers of meaning and mystery embedded within this series, one that approaches its content with striking visuals and a determination to portray the human response to the mystifying, using a supernatural spark to fuel an otherwise very relatable and conceivable drama.
The first three episodes of Hellbound are screening at the Toronto International Film Festival as part of the Primetime section.